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Jim Thompson, The Kill-Off

By sheer coincidence, today's Merriam-Webster "Word of the Day" is whodunit ("a detective story or mystery story"). Coincidence, because just yesterday I finished reading Jim Thompson's The Kill-Off, from 1957. Thompson's novels rarely, if ever, traffic in "who done it" - instead, many of his protagonists are psychopathic killers who leave behind multiple victims in their remorseless wakes. There is little doubt over who the murderer is. And when the protagonist isn't a cold-blooded murderer, it's a con man or some other two-bit hood perpetrating petty crimes. What little mystery there is to Thompson's stories is limited to the sane and socially well-adjusted reader's wonderment over how people like those protagonists could behave so unspeakably.

Which made The Kill-Off a very unexpected and pleasant surprise. Set in an unnamed, dying resort town on the Jersey shore, the story centers on Luane Devore, a middle-aged woman of the fading gentry who spends her days as a self-imposed invalid in her big house on the edge of town, endlessly gossiping on the phone and spreading vicious rumors about pretty much everyone in town. And, in doing so, giving all of them a compelling motive to murder her. Thompson makes it clear, from the very first chapter, that Luane will ultimately be murdered, but he takes his own sweet time getting around to killing her off. Instead, he slowly builds to that climax by presenting each chapter in a different character's voice, establishing each person's place in the town's rather deplorable social milieu. It's very quickly made clear that most of these people had reasons, many of them seemingly justifiable, for doing Luane in. So in introducing each of the characters in such a detailed manner, and clearly signaling Luane's impending demise, the book isn't a "whodunit" so much as a "whowilldoit." The narrative is a very interesting twist on the conventions of crime fiction, one which shows why Thompson was one of the true giants of the art.

February 15, 2008 in Books | Permalink